Antebellum Feminism’s Relationship With the Antislavery Movement

By Joshlynn Borreson |

Since the early nineteenth century in America, the main goal of organized feminism has been to provide women with political, social, and economic equality. Women of the American Antebellum era longed for these rights, just like women do today. Of course, there were incredible women such as Mary Wollstonecraft from the eighteenth century who were advocating women’s rights, but the movement did not thrive until women banded together in the early to mid-nineteenth century. Just as women’s liberation in the 1960s and ’70s emerged after the civil rights movement, the first wave of feminism branched out of the abolition movement in the 1830s. Abolitionism provided momentum for the women’s rights movement, helping women gain traction and influence in all three previously mentioned spheres needed to gain equality. After women established their own movement, they separated from abolitionism, leading them down a challenging road that segues into recurring obstacles within the movement that women still face today.

The first wave of feminism emerged from Protestant abolitionism as a modest movement in the early nineteenth century, mainly focusing on topics such as a woman’s right to speak in public and control her property. Many women were involved in the abolition movement and the Second Great Awakening before the feminist movement, so a majority of their energy and thought went towards rebuking slavery based on religious rather than secular belief. Issues such as birth control, sexual freedom, and gender roles were not central during these early stages of feminism. Women were starting to organize themselves within their congregations, but they still did not have access to the larger sphere of activism because of their sex. Female activists initially had to depend on men and religion to open the doorways to feminism and abolitionism for them.

At this time, men still typically led the religious congregations that opposed slavery in America. Despite this male domination, women were still able to create smaller groups within these religious organizations that allowed them to have some influence within their communities. Due to the Second Great Awakening that gained momentum in the early nineteenth century (Hill 13), Protestant women during the 1820s sought to “feminize” education. Women such as Catharine Beecher, the daughter of Lyman Beecher, wanted to give women a larger role in educating the youth within their communities. Kathryn Sklar points out that even though women like Beecher were not always allowed to directly participate in their congregation’s activities or meetings, they created their own female oriented groups. For example, before activist Angelina Grimké converted to Quakerism, she was part of a women’s prayer group and started a “colored Sunday school” (Sklar 5) that allowed her to reach out to not only white women, but also women of color. Even though most male, Protestant ministers did not agree with this kind of female participation in public church events or discussions, the renewed religious movements of the early nineteenth century (especially Quakerism) did allow some opportunity for women to join issues of the community involving social justice.

Unlike most other Protestant religions, Quakerism allowed women to speak publicly within their congregations, and even allowed them to become ministers. Although this collective subculture viewed slavery as an inherent evil, they were not typically involved in the anti-slavery movement outside of their own communities. However, their abolitionist views did expose their female members to other abolitionists that were involved in the movement at larger scales.

Female Quaker activists, like the Grimké sisters, initially applied religious rhetoric to support women of all races to speak in public, vote, and take positions of authority. Their Quaker views denounced slavery, thus eliminating some racist sentiment within that small sphere of Protestantism. America was a mainly Protestant nation at this time, so religion was the best way for women and many abolitionists to appeal to a broader audience.

While women were working hard within religion to branch out and not only oppose slavery, but also the oppression of women, white men were working to prevent female voices from reaching past their groups. Although many men were attempting to suppress female activism, William Lloyd Garrison was one activist who supported both black Americans and women. Unlike most men involved in the women’s rights and anti-slavery movements, Garrison wanted the oppressed groups to speak for themselves; this created another opportunity for women based in religious communities to eventually lead the feminist movement. Men who were involved in the slowly growing women’s rights movement often sought to limit a woman’s control over her body and property, but Garrison advocated full female independence. Aside from partaking in feminism, he was a fervent anti-slavery journalist. Some anti-slavery activists wanted a slow dissolution of slavery so the economy of slave-holding states would not be completely broken down, but Garrison called for immediate emancipation and enfranchisement of black Americans.

Men like William Lloyd Garrison were, and still are, important allies to social justice movements. Often, men in positions of political and social power tend to either ignore civil/women’s rights, or turn the situations around to make them fit an agenda that supports white men. Like many modern, influential men, Garrison was wealthy and white, automatically putting him above women and all people of color in American society. However, he took advantage of his privileged position to help these oppressed groups by supporting them in organizations, conventions, and his publications in his newspaper The Liberator.

Even though Garrison was not very active within the religious realm of social justice, he did become associated with many religious female activists that would go on to contribute in or lead the first wave of feminism. Quaker women had influence within their communities, but it was individuals like Garrison who later helped them extend their rhetoric into a more public and national scene. In 1831, Garrison befriended Quaker minister, Lucretia Mott. She and her husband helped Garrison found the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) in 1833. Despite Garrison’s advocacy of women’s rights, women were initially only allowed to attend public meetings and could not obtain membership in the society. The AASS was a source from which individuals such as Frederick Douglass emerged from to participate in and lead the feminist and black civil rights causes.

Garrison viewed slavery as “an abomination, a sin that must be called to the attention of the American people and eradicated from the face of the earth,” and so did the 200,000 members of the AASS by the time the World Anti-Slavery Convention occurred (Hogan, “A Time for Silence” 65). The abolitionist movement was growing in size along with the women’s rights movement. By 1840, women were actually members of the booming AASS, and Garrison aggressively promoted the equal participation of men and women in all social justice issues.

In the spring of 1840, feminist activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott traveled to London with their husbands, who were both delegates for the World Anti-Slavery Convention. Both women were involved in abolitionism and women’s rights, but the convention prohibited women from publicly speaking. Due to this unexpected problem, the female New England delegates resorted to being represented by Wendell Phillips at the convention (McKivigan 250).

The World Anti-Slavery Convention was better known for addressing the “woman question” rather than the problem of slavery. This reveals the flawed and misogynistic reasoning behind excluding women from public speaking and meetings. Should a woman have equal involvement in social and political matters? To feminists and female allies, the answer to this was a resounding yes. In her writings on the “woman question” at the Convention, Lisa Shawn Hogan says that even though the Convention was an important development for the battle against slavery in the Western world, it brought up another serious issue that could not be ignored at that point (Hogan, “A Time for Silence” 65). Women wanted equal rights and participation in social justice movements. This ultimately aided in the split between the women’s rights and abolition movements.

Although the women’s representative, Phillips, did argue for the ladies’ right to speak at the convention, the act of speaking for them on their views of abolition was detrimental to their cause. Women did not need a man speaking for them; if they could not speak for themselves, then no one would. As John McKivigan observes the link between feminism and the Convention, he indicates that William Lloyd Garrison arguably chose the better option of silence at the convention. Garrison figured that if women could not speak in public, then why should he?

The women who advanced feminism in the 1830s felt the same way about a woman’s right to be independent and speak in public. Many of these women worked directly with William Lloyd Garrison up to the 1840s to advance the female and black American cause. Lucretia Mott was one of these first female activists. Like most women involved in women’s rights and abolition, she focused on biblical values to encourage other women to become involved in the anti-slavery and feminist movements. As a Quaker minister, she traveled extensively and preached Quaker ideals that spoke against the cruelties of slavery. Around the same time that the AASS was founded in 1833 (with the help of Mott), she helped organize the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society that featured a mixed racial membership. In the decades leading up to (and after) the American Civil War, white feminists often appealed to white supremacy to boost the women’s rights cause, but Lucretia Mott was not among those racist activists. She was a strong woman who relied on her morality to help other women. Carol Faulkner writes, “too often Lucretia Mott is misunderstood as a ‘quiet Quaker.’ Scholars have followed the lead of nineteenth-century commentators like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who wrote that she ‘worshipped’ Mott, regarding her as ‘above ordinary mortals’” (Faulkner 3). Mott was thought of as a saintly woman who fervently promoted both female and black rights, and she had a significant influence on future feminist leaders. It is unfortunate to see, however, that feminist advocates who also encouraged black emancipation are not thoroughly appreciated or observed by historians, as Faulkner points out. This trend still continues today, with white, middle-class feminism taking the spotlight in the media, while the women who support multiple demographics are ignored.

Another set of women who are frequently overlooked and not credited as some of the founders of modern American feminism are sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké. Like Mott, they were Quaker feminists and abolitionists who did not appeal to white supremacy to support female rights; they actively supported women of color in their speeches and writings during the 1830s and ’40s. In an 1837 letter to Catharine Beecher, Angelina Grimké stated that “whatever it is morally right for man to do, it is morally right for woman to do.” Both Angelina and Sarah Grimké believed in complete political, economic, social, and spiritual equality between men and women.

The Grimké sisters were born to an elite, slave owning, South Carolinian family; seeing these first hand horrors of slavery motivated them to become involved in the anti-slavery movement after converting to Quakerism in 1828 (Sklar 5-6). By partaking in a religion that viewed slavery as an evil condemned by God, the Grimkés’ eyes were opened further to the cruelties of slavery.

After they became more involved in Quaker activism, it became apparent that Angelina especially possessed the grace and power required to be an effective orator against slavery. Historian Gerda Lerner describes Angelina as “not beautiful in the conventional sense, but when she spoke in her clear, well-modulated voice her personality and deep convictions captivated her audiences and transformed her in their eyes. She was often described as beautiful, powerful, a magnetic, gifted speaker” (Lerner 6). Angelina would use her public speaking skills to support abolitionism alongside women’s rights.

After meeting with William Lloyd Garrison, Sarah and Angelina Grimké sought to unite feminism and abolitionism. The sisters wanted more black female involvement in women’s rights and abolition groups that were spread across the New England area. Referring to the New York Female Anti-Slavery Society, Angelina wrote, “No colored Sister has ever been in the board, & they have hardly any colored members,” and Sarah Grimké very clearly explained to black activists that, “in the sight of God, and in our own estimation, we have no superiority over you.” Clearly, people of color did not want their people enslaved or persecuted, yet there seemed to be a barrier preventing a diverse mix of participation that Angelina noticed (Sklar 24). Many white, female activists were still racist, so black female exclusion was not addressed within these organizations. Despite the strong support the Grimké sisters gave women of color, prioritization of white women within feminism is an issue that has never truly been resolved. As women have moved up in the first world, the overall gaps in equality between white men and white women have shrunk. Yet, after 180 years, white women have not fully utilized their privilege to support women of color. Using their limited privilege, the Grimké sisters were able to extend their support to women of color within America, so current white feminists should be striving to achieve just as much.

The Grimké sisters knew that both women and people of color regardless of gender had to be liberated from oppression, and one side should not be crushed to support the other. In a letter to Theodore Dwight Weld, her future husband, and John Greenleaf Whittier, Angelina Grimké sternly spoke her mind on this idea: “And can you not see that women could do, & would do a hundred times more for the slave if she were not fettered? Why! We are gravely told that we are out of our sphere even when we circulate petitions; out of our ‘appropriate sphere’ when we speak to women only… Silence is our province, submission our duty” (Grimké, Letter to Theodore Dwight Weld). Throughout the letter, Angelina heavily refers to the constricting spheres of womanhood, or what is frequently referred to as the “cult of domesticity.” Instead of supporting another oppressed demographic to the fullest extent, women were being herded into domestic spheres that curbed female influence on society. Angelina recognized that women of all races had to band together with men of color in order for both feminism and abolitionism to be fully effective, but she also knew that there were activists who wanted to split these social justice movements: “Anti-slavery men are trying very hard to separate what God hath joined together. I fully believe that so far from keeping different moral reformations entirely distinct, that no such attempt can ever be successful.” Unlike feminists that proceeded her, Angelina realized that oppressed groups of people had to work together to efficiently gain equality for all.

The summer of 1837 saw a large increase in membership of the AASS thanks to the Grimkés’ vigorous touring in the New England area. Simply being a woman who possessed impeccable public speaking skills was a feminist statement in itself due to how most women were “shamed into silence.” Despite the Grimkés’ accepting views on racial diversity within the feminist and anti-slavery movements, freed black women and men were still oppressed and had difficulty breaking through the underlying racist barrier that still existed in the north. It is baffling to imagine that the same white men and women who advocated the emancipation of slaves still believed that they were superior to the race that they were supposedly supporting.

Understanding the link between black civil rights and feminism is crucial in avoiding the exclusion of women of color. Even though one does not hear much about past or present black feminists, they have existed and always will, and their contributions in black civil rights and feminism will always be felt. One example of a black activist from the nineteenth century who has been relatively ignored is Sarah Douglass. She worked extensively in the feminist and abolition movements and also befriended the Grimkés and Lucretia Mott, yet she has hardly been discussed because of her race. Even though Quakers supported abolition, the Arch Street Meeting that Douglass and her family regularly attended segregated blacks and whites. Despite this pervasive racism, she was still involved in the community because she had the drive and economic opportunity to partake in abolitionism and promote the education of black youth and women (Yee, “Douglass, Sarah Mapps”). Douglass also lectured on female hygiene, physiology, and sex. As author Julie Winch explains, “her emphasis on education and self-improvement helped shape the lives of the many hundreds of black children she taught… her pointed and persistent criticism of northern racism reminded her white colleagues in the abolitionist movement that their agenda must include more than the emancipation of the slaves” (Winch, 241).

Even though there were progressive women who were explicitly discussing black female exclusion from social justice movements, mainstream feminism and abolitionism ignored those voices. The efforts of white and black women alike were not quite enough to cohesively join both of those movements and include women of color, and one will still find tensions between black civil rights and feminism today as white women continue to prioritize their rights over other minorities.

During the same time, Maria Stewart was another feminist and abolitionist who believed in the immediate emancipation and equality of America’s black population. In Kristin Waters’ essay on the black liberalism of Stewart and thinker David Walker, she compares the writing of Stewart to that of the Enlightenment figure John Locke: “In 1831, Stewart, using language drawn from John Locke’s classical liberalism, published an essay in William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator arguing for freedom and equality for African Americans and proclaiming: ‘All the nations of the earth are crying out for liberty and equality. Away, away with tyranny and oppression! Shall Africa’s sons be silent any longer?'” (Waters, 35). The “founding fathers” were inspired by John Locke to secure freedom for the white man; Stewart was inspired by Locke to advocate the freedom of black individuals not only in America, but throughout the world. Despite her compelling works and the fact that she was the first woman to speak to a racially mixed crowd of men and women, she fell into obscurity by the late 1830s due to heavy criticism (Sklar 11).

Northern America was not ready to listen to a black women who called for civil rights and gender equality. Those Americans were also unwilling to support both the women’s rights and abolition causes equally; this helped generate the unfortunate split between the two movements. This split would never be mended, for women and black Americans still have not come to support each others’ social justice movements on a grand scale. Once again black women are left having to choose between the two, or are essentially ignored by mainstream social media.

By about 1840, the link between abolitionism and feminism had nearly disappeared; the events at the abolitionist Pennsylvania Hall in 1838 helped fray these ties. On May 17th of 1838, a convention of racially mixed, anti-slavery women met in the Hall despite a large mob of anti-abolition men protesting outside the building. This was the last time Angelina Grimké spoke in public; after her speech, the women of the convention exited the building with arms linked, as men shouted and hurled stones at them. Once all of the women exited the building, the men burned the Hall down. The end of Angelina’s public activism marked the severing of ties between abolitionism and feminism, and “that violence symbolized the intractability of slavery as an issue in U.S. society, and it highlighted the degree to which Garrisonians were challenging the assumptions on which slavery rested” (Sklar 40). Kathryn Sklar brings us back to the fact that William Lloyd Garrison and the AASS were the forces that joined feminism and abolitionism in the first place, but even Garrisonians were experiencing friction within their movement.

During 1837 and 1838, Garrison accepted a perfectionist view of nonviolence as an act of opposition towards the government and the anti-abolition/female population. This new idea of perfectionism embraced equality across all social justice movements, but many feminists and abolitionists did not agree with these new, radical views that Garrison introduced to the AASS. One of the main reasons that Garrisonians split up was because Garrison wanted to completely support the pro-female cause within the AASS, and many members were not willing to do that. While there were influential women within the ranks of the AASS and other anti-slavery organizations, it was apparent that the overall abolitionist campaign would not fully support women alongside black emancipation. As the ties between abolitionism and feminism disintegrated, the Grimké sisters retired from public speaking, making way for other women to lead the next stage of the women’s rights movement.

After the split between Garrisonians, feminists, and abolitionists, the women’s rights movement became an independent entity in the early 1840s. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott seized the opportunity to lead feminism as a movement solely focused on female advancement. Mott and Stanton originally met at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840, and soon afterwards, they focused on promoting feminism together. Mott was a Quaker and over twenty years older than Stanton, so she was among the original female activists who emphasized religion in their social justice rhetoric. Stanton, on the other hand, was a secular activist who concentrated on more progressive concerns such as suffrage, birth control, and divorce. Now that women’s rights had separated from the abolitionist cause, Stanton had the opportunity to focus on those more specific subjects. Among these issues, suffrage became one that many women started prioritizing. Leading up to the Seneca Falls Convention, feminists were organizing themselves and determining which rights they absolutely needed to focus on.

The Seneca Falls Convention, held in New York in 1848, marked the beginning of a united and passionate campaign for women’s rights actually led by women. One of the pivotal events at the convention was the drafting of the Declaration of Sentiments. Bearing blatant similarities to the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of Sentiments listed the grievances that women experienced under the centuries-old patriarchy in the western world: “He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise. Having deprived her of this first right of a citizen, the elective franchise, thereby leaving her without representation in the halls of legislation, he has oppressed her on all sides. He has made her, if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead” (Declaration of Sentiments, 1848). The list goes on to detail the injustices that men have served women over the past centuries. At least one hundred of the estimated three hundred attendees signed the Declaration. In Sally McMillen’s book on the Convention and origins of the women’s rights movement, she explains how “the Declaration would serve as the basic text for the women’s rights movement and be reintroduced at future meetings” (72). This provided feminists facing social and political challenges proceeding the Civil War with a basic map of the values women needed to promote in order to remain united. Macmillan writes, “Most important, this Convention was the first time so many Americans met in a public setting to discuss the radical idea of female equality”( 72). Women had attended public meetings and conventions with men a decade or two earlier, but abolition was usually the focus of those meetings, not women’s rights. The Convention was attended by a handful of the women who would lead the movement into the new Reconstruction era of feminism—the beginning of the sole feminist movement.

The Convention provided Elizabeth Cady Stanton with a prime opportunity to become a leader within the women’s rights movement. She was the main drafter of the Declaration of Sentiments alongside Mott, and one can see her secular views throughout the Declaration. Stanton has been described by historians and researchers as taking on values that would later be questioned during the 1860s and ’70s. Portraying Stanton as more progressive would perhaps be more precise, as Lisa Shawn Hogan describes her as a woman who “anticipat[ed] many of the central issues and arguments of second-wave feminism” (“The Politics of Feminist Autobiography” 3). Indeed, most of the views that she embraced were thought to be controversial or radical by other (especially religious) women involved in feminism. Many female attendees at the convention even opposed female enfranchisement, but Stanton kept pushing for it. Due to her powerful views, she was a dynamic partner for not only Lucretia Mott, but also Susan B. Anthony. Amidst a tense time preceding a corrupted Civil War, Anthony and Stanton would soon be the primary leaders in the suffragist movement.

While this was an incredibly important development within the women’s rights movement, it further exemplified its split from black civil rights and abolition. Compared to the early 1830s where there were organizations such as the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society that had very mixed racial groups, the Seneca Falls Convention had a glaring lack of black female representation. Out of the more than three hundred people that attended the Convention, only one of them was black. Frederick Douglass, a longtime supporter of Garrison, abolitionism, and women’s rights, was that single black attendee and speaker.

Frederick Douglass was a former slave that turned to activism in the anti-slavery and feminist movements after he was freed, making him one of the few connections between the two movements before the American Civil War broke out. Douglass wrote, “When I ran away from slavery, it was for myself; when I advocated emancipation, it was for my people; but when I stood up for the rights of woman, self was out of the question, and I found a little nobility in the act” (709). After Douglass escaped from slavery in 1838, he advocated emancipation for the rest of his people and for the liberation of women. In 1847, right before the Seneca Falls Convention, he published his anti-slavery newspaper, the North Star, which simultaneously supported female rights. As Gary L. Lemons suggests in Womanist Forefathers, Douglass was a new type of man in the mid-nineteenth century—being a black male and feminist while still being able to link these female issues back to abolitionism and black civil rights established him as an accomplished writer and activist. Indeed, he was one in the small amount of people at the Seneca Falls Convention who fully supported female suffrage.

However, as Lemons also points out about Douglass’ writing, there seems to be a distinct lack of black female support (which was seen all across white feminism anyway): “despite Douglass’s lifelong devotion to female liberation and ongoing battle for black independence, black female subjectivity is edited out of the text of black male feminist representation” (Lemons 24). Since most white women and black men did not explicitly support black women, black women had to push even harder to gain their long awaited equality.

One black feminist and abolitionist figure whom was willing to rise up and support black women was Sojourner Truth. Just a decade before the beginning of the Civil War, Sojourner Truth delivered her famous speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” in 1851 before a women’s convention in Akron, Ohio. It was a relatively short speech that was not accurately recorded, but it is an influential statement in support of not just female empowerment, but black female empowerment: “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!” (Truth, Ain’t I a Woman). Truth believed that women could be assertive, help each other, free themselves, and fix the oppressive Western society that man had created.

Despite her powerful beliefs, the true essence of her words at the 1851 convention will never be captured. Teresa Zackodnik reveals the flaws behind the recording of Truth’s dynamic words by pointing out how the original publication of her speech in the Anti-Slavery Bugle did not use her dialect and did not include the dynamic question “ain’t I a woman?” at all. On the other hand, Frances Gage later published a version that was a more “true” interpretation that did include Truth’s dialect and the title question (Zackodnik 50). It is unfortunate that one of the only well-known black, female activists of the mid-nineteenth century did not have her ardent values properly recorded. Her words were not completely diluted, however; the fervor behind them is still evident and appreciated.

In the decades following the 1850s, Truth’s powerful efforts were not enough to unite black civil rights and female liberation; while she was advocating black and female rights, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were working to support the feminist cause. After the Seneca Falls Convention, Susan B. Anthony became involved in the women’s rights movement after connecting with Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The 1850s was a time for feminists to collect themselves for the coming years of avid suffrage advocacy. During this time, Stanton and Anthony continued to advocate social equality for women. After the Civil War, Anthony became the face of female suffrage and the main figure from the first wave of feminist movement that history remembers.

These women were passionate figures who greatly advanced women’s rights in the public, but history tends to forget the racism that fueled white feminism and the omission of black women from this pivotal movement. By the mid-1850s and the start of the Civil War, many feminists were still promoting emancipation, but the movement still severely excluded black people of all genders; this latent racism eventually became explicit in feminist arguments supporting female suffrage.

After the Civil War ended in 1865, it was expected that black men would gain the right to vote. Shortly after, in 1870, the fifteenth amendment was ratified, allowing men to vote no matter their “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Understandably, women were upset that they did not gain the right to vote as well, but one would think that after emerging from the abolition movement, supporters of feminism would not base this anger off of race. “What will we and our daughters suffer if these degraded black men are allowed to have the rights that would make them even worse than our Saxon fathers?” (qtd. in Ginzberg interview).These blatantly racist words were unfortunately Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s. Essentially, she said that women would suffer more persecution under black men with political power than under the white men who had systematically oppressed white and black women for centuries. In an interview with NPR, Lori Ginzberg, the author of Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life, highlights the main problem with white feminism after the Civil War: “She demanded — in the true liberal tradition — access to the mainstream of American society in terms of professions, education, law, politics, property and so on. But when she said ‘women,’ I think … that she primarily had in mind women much like herself: white, middle-class, culturally if not religiously protestant, propertied, well-educated. And my disagreement with Stanton is that she… came to see women like herself as more deserving of rights than other people.” Even today, we find white, middle class feminists who are not reaching past their demographic and supporting the rest of their sisters. The issues of black women fall to the back burner of social justice movements time and time again.

This racist sentiment continued into the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Rebecca Latimer Felton, the first woman appointed to the Senate, unfortunately utilized a good amount of racist rhetoric when advocating women’s suffrage: “I do not want to see a negro man walk to the polls and vote on who should handle my tax money, while I myself cannot vote at all. Is that fair?” (Dittmer 121). No, it was not fair that only men were able to vote; all genders should have had the right to vote. However, suggesting that black men are below white women does not support that argument. Unfortunately, this aggression towards black men only continued to escalate into the mid-twentieth century, simultaneously alienating black women who were involved in social justice movements.

Fortunately, current feminist activists do not appeal to racism like they did in the first wave of feminism in order to gain expansive support for women. If a female activist or politician were to say anything like Felton or Stanton did today, it would not go unnoticed within the media and they would likely be heavily criticized. Aside from eliminating some racism within the movement, American society and feminism have improved their ideals and priorities significantly since the 1830s. For instance, mainstream society does not explicitly indoctrinate women with the cult of domesticity; women can vote, run for political office, and run their own businesses.

Due to these advances, the current feminist movement prides itself in giving liberation to women of all sexual orientations, religions, skin colors, and cultures. However, not all feminists truly support all of these groups. As seen throughout the first wave of feminism—especially after it split from the anti-slavery movement—it was difficult for black women to gain influence within the movement due to poorly masked racism. Even today, there are white feminists who identify as their birth-assigned gender (also called cisgender) who do not support women of color, transgender, or disabled women. The experience of multiple sources of persecution that cisgender, white women do not experience was coined as “intersectionality” by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. Simply put by comedian and journalist Ava Vidal: “The main thing ‘intersectionality’ is trying to do, I would say, is to point out that feminism which is overly white, middle class, cis-gendered and able-bodied represents just one type of view – and doesn’t reflect on the experiences of all the multi-layered facets in life that women of all backgrounds face” (Vidal 2014). It is incredibly important for feminists of the twenty-first century to observe the first wave of feminism so that they may end the trend of focusing primarily on white women in America. As technology, social media, and education have advanced, the world has become more interconnected, and more women across the world are becoming aware of their oppression. This is a prime time for more privileged women to take advantage of this communication and do what most white feminists of the nineteenth century did not do—support more disadvantaged women and let them advance within society.

Globalization has also created opportunities for different religions to mingle within America. As opposed to the mainly Protestant early nineteenth century that feminism grew out of, today’s America has a wide array of religions throughout the country. Though it was a very unpopular opinion at the time, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was one of the few women in the late nineteenth century to point out what she thought were constricting, patriarchal flaws within Protestantism in her Woman’s Bible. While still somewhat unpopular, this opinion grew more widespread in the later waves of feminism. There are flaws in any movement or organization, but non-religious feminists should not automatically assume that a religious woman is subject to extreme oppression or misogyny within her religious community.

Due to America’s official war on terror that has spanned almost fifteen years, Muslim women in particular have been subject to shockingly brutal racism linked to religion. This racism is not limited to social justice opponents, but also extends to poorly informed or racist feminists. According to Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, “Feminists must be cautious of when their sentiments and actions are swept up to bolster the rising tide of anti-Muslim hatred. The Sun newspaper demanded on its front page that Muslim women be unveiled. Muslim women have had their veils forcibly ripped off… It is Islam that is the problem, not Muslim women, Muslim women are told” (Janmohamed 2013). While these white feminists may have good, “liberating” intentions, they must be wary of judging another woman’s situation and taking the time to actually understand it, especially if they are not a part of the other woman’s race, culture, or religion. As Janmohamed succinctly states, “Feminists: stop fighting over what I wear, and start addressing who I am. I am neither burqa nor bikini. I am woman.”

The people within American society are changing and growing more diverse; despite its flaws, feminism has recently started to grow as views towards gender, sex, and race have changed in American society. While this growth isn’t usually seen in feminism that is viewed through the media, many feminists coming from various backgrounds are beginning to recognize the need to diversify the movement. Especially within social media, women of color are realizing the continued exclusion of their demographic from feminism and are empowering themselves by embracing their race and gender.

Although sub-divisions of feminism are actively attempting to eliminate the gender and race gap, tensions between race and modern feminism parallel the conflict that existed between white women and the black American population after the 1830s. Whether intentionally or not, mainstream feminism does not listen to the voices of all women, and it has had a tendency to do so since its major split from the abolition movement. In the words of Angelina Grimké, social justices “are bound together in a circle, like the sciences; they blend with each other, like the colors of the rainbow” (Grimké, Letter to Theodore Dwight Weld). Feminism grew out of complications within abolitionism, and, like many social justice movements, it continues to be a very complex movement that overlaps with race, class, and other gender issues. By gaining an understanding of the original women’s rights movement and observing the recurring flaws within it, perhaps modern feminism within America will come to recognize and address its own shortcomings.

Works Cited

“Declaration of Sentiments.” 1848. The Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony Papers Project. Rutgers, 2010. Web. 16 Sept. 2014.

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